I attended training recently with The Schools Consent Project. I'll be going into schools as a volunteer lawyer to present workshops on the issue of consent. We'll be talking about the law of consent, and what consent means to young people.
Currently, there is no comprehensive statutory curriculum for Personal, Social and Health Education ('PSHE'), including sex education. In February 2015 the Education Select Committee recommended that PSHE be made statutory, to put it on an equal footing with other subjects. The Education Committee, along with the Chairs of the Health, Home Affairs and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees wrote to Secretary of State for Education (at the time) Nicky Morgan, asking her to make it compulsory.
Nicky Morgan refused to do so, saying that the problem with PSHE across the country was the quality of the teaching. Perhaps with the new Secretary of State having a combined role as Secretary of State for Education as well as Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening MP will re-address this in the coming months.
Incredibly, schools are not required to teach children and young people about consent. Nor do they have to teach their young people about the emotional implications of sex. This means that many sex education lessons can be limited to the physical act of sex and contraception options. But there are so many other important parts to create a healthy sexual relationship. As a result, there is a huge need for these workshops. The Schools Consent Project aims to fill this void.
School teachers who see children and young people every day can often find it difficult to then address sex education and consent with them. I think that young people having the chance to speak to an outsider, who really understands the legal position with regard to consent it can be really helpful for both them and their teachers.
Consent: As simple as a cup of tea?
Recent campaigns including this one have tried to make the idea of consent easy to understand:
But a YouTube video isn't enough! The Schools Consent Project workshops are designed to open up a discussion about consent and sexual relationships, to discuss common myths and misconceptions as well as common responses to disclosures of sexual assault and how these may or may not be helpful to the person disclosing.
As a volunteer going into schools, I will be presenting the current legal position regarding consent.
Legal issues of consent arise regularly in the media, and young people are bombarded with stories, making it hard to know the facts.
We will be using activities to involve young people with consent issues currently in the media, or those they may have heard about or experienced. We'll be encouraging debate and discussion using activities and games in the workshops.
The workshops are tailored to the young people to whom we'll be presenting and are always age-appropriate, in gender-mixed classes (unless in single sex schools). I'm really glad that The Schools Consent Project deliver workshops to boys and girls together. It always seemed strange to me that in sex education classes boys and girls would be separated. I feel it defeats the object to talk about sex, relationships and consent and yet not open the conversation enough to have all students in the same room together to talk about it.
The language used in the workshops is accessible and inclusive of sexual orientations, gender stereotypes and norms aren't presumed.
An International Perspective
In Sweden, the age of consent is 15 years old unless a person is in a position of trust, in which case it is 18 years old. In the UK, sex is legal at 16 years old. In Sweden, sex education has been compulsory since 1956. Children are given four one hour-long classes per week for between four and eight weeks. This is huge in comparison to the UK, and I think really reflects the importance society places in this education.
In the US, cases about consent have dominated the headlines; Brock Turner being perhaps the most widely known recent example. This case was surrounded by issues of consent, influence of alcohol, victim blaming and indecent images taken without consent. Comments made to the Judge by the abuser's father minimalised his son's behaviour as "20 minutes of action". Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting his victim on Stanford University campus. There is still a problem with sexual assaults being dealt with on campus by university authorities, rather than by the police. Programmes such as this BBC documentary on Fraternities expose some of the problems with consent on campuses.
In The Schools Consent Project workshops, we'll cover many relevant issues for young people, including:
1. What is consent
2. Consent and the law
3. Enthusiastic and grudging consent
4. Impact of unwanted sexual contact or non-consent
6. Revenge porn
The Schools Consent Project has found that many young people want to find out more about the law relating to sexting in particular. Many have witnessed or experienced images being shared amongst classmates or online. Many have seen the media reporting cases of children and young people swapping images of each other both voluntary and otherwise, as well as conflicting news reports of the consequences. The Schools Consent Project workshops explain the law on sexting, as well as how this applies to social media platforms such as Snapchat and others, and how this may affect them.
In High Demand
So far, The Schools Consent Project has reached 4000 children and young people across the UK, with another 30 workshops lined up between September and November 2016 already. This is fantastic work considering the workshops have only been running since around a year ago. This just shows how much of a need there is and that schools and teachers really acknowledge this gap, and both want and need someone to fill this.
It's great that The Schools Consent Project exists and I'm really pleased to be part of it, but I really feel that this should be compulsory across the country. Young people should not have to rely on volunteers to understand consent. It's crucial for them and for society as a whole that the issue of consent forms a natural part of their education and development. I hope that the Justine Greening will re-think the government's position on this soon.
I'm really looking forward to getting into schools and meeting young people to discuss such an important issue, including some of the challenging and thoughtful questions I'm sure that they will ask! If you're interested in getting involved with The Schools Consent Project, including if you would like to become a volunteer lawyer, you can find out more here.
I'm a child abuse solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp.